Can you be physically incompatible with a career?

For all that academia is a ‘brainy’ pursuit, many disciplines also rely on an impressive array of motor skills and physical abilities. Perhaps you need to be able to carry those archaeological samples out of a desert canyon, or you need to be able to dissect a fruit fly’s brain under a microscope. I remember an old Grey’s Anatomy episode where a resident was dismissed for not having a surgeon’s “hands”.  In an ideal world we could surmount, bypass, or move any physical barriers to our academic dreams – but is that always realistic?

Sometimes it just means altering one’s expectations. In one of my prior research positions I mentored a student with cerebral palsy. The project they worked on required many different abilities that I took for granted in myself and other students – the ability to perform precise measurements quickly, walk long distances quickly, and enter data quickly (you are probably seeing a pattern here). Ultimately he could do 95% of what all of the other students could, it just took him a bit more time and effort. In the end his project went so well he came back for a second summer, and it was a rewarding experience for both of us… he on track for a successful career in science.

Sometimes it means a lot of hard work and effort. Perhaps a task requires good hand-eye coordination – better if you have it innately, but with enough practice and experience you can become an expert. Perhaps you need to get over a fear of the water and learn how to scuba dive. Or perhaps those archaeological samples that need to be carried can be an inspiration for better health and physical condition. Last semester I took some students on a walk for our last lab. I realized halfway through that one of my students was really struggling with our pace, and she was very embarrassed that she couldn’t keep up. At one point in my career I was like her… I remember how horrible I felt when I realized that I was holding my PhD supervisor up in the field. It took a lot of concerted effort over many months to get myself in shape enough that I could keep up. Even today I’m not a superstar in the field and I have to acknowledge my limitations when planning sampling.

It can be a real challenge to motivate yourself physically, and not everyone is going to choose that path. However, it’s not only cardiovascular ability and physical strength needed. Many fields require long days (and nights) in uncomfortable conditions in sometimes remote locations. This can really be a barrier early in students’ careers – if the first experience a student has is exhausting, embarrassing, and uncomfortable, they are less likely to stick with that field. This could be a real hindrance against diversity in certain fields.

Sometimes, however, all the hard work and effort isn’t going to lead to success. One of my dissertation experiments was almost a complete wash because I couldn’t pipette at the required level of precision due to a physical condition. I ended up needing help with that part of my project, and after that, I knew that I couldn’t specialize in that area. I do think that there are some physical barriers that are serious enough that not every person can do every job, no matter how we strive for equality and opportunity. If the barriers are in the sample collection stage an academic could become an expert in analyzing the data, interpreting the materials, and/or writing – but that’s more feasible later in your career. Students are expected to be able to succeed in all aspects of their research projects. How do you help students understand or work past their limitations? How do we, as mentors, provide support and realism at the same time?


15 thoughts on “Can you be physically incompatible with a career?

  1. Really great post! My precision skills are not all that great – especially pipetting. It’s strange, I really want to gain lab experience but I’m also terrified that I just don’t have the innate skills. This post is good reminder that if I work hard – I could improve!

  2. My basic-lab work requires an above-average amount of dexterity, and I did not fully appreciate the spatial skills it requires until I had a rotating grad student last fall. Student was utterly unable to acquire the very-basic foundational skills with equipment that our scientific work relies on. Three months into the rotation, student was still intimidated by this task (analogous to pipetting, maybe) and unable to perform it in any reasonable amount of time. I am still torn about whether I should have persevered, but I discouraged student from staying because student’s intellectual grasp of concepts was also lacking. I’m sure with 2-3x the normal amount of time and work, it might have been ok? Should I have just been patient? I came the conclusion that I should not encourage it, but rather advise student to seek a line of research better suited to student’s skills.

  3. I’m having trouble seeing why this is any different from being “mentally” incompatible with a career. Is it because we think that physical skills or challenges can be overcome but not mental ones? Or that the physical demands of a job are not as important as the mental requirements? There are a lot of unspoken assumptions here that maybe need to be unpacked….

    I think that the advice a trainee gets should be the same, regardless of whether the “incompatibility” is physical or mental. Deciding when to encourage and when to be painfully blunt will always be a difficult decision.

    • I think that, rightly or wrongly, it really is that we perceive intellectual abilities to be innate and physical abilities to be modifiable. It changes our approach to challenges.

  4. Fields have certain requirements, among them physical. For instance, in the physical sciences there are subfields that require great stamina, as once you get precious time on a major instrument (e.g., a telescope or a synchrotron) you better take advantage of all of it. There are people who physically cannot pull off these long shifts — that doesn’t mean they are unsuited for science altogether, but a slightly different subfield may be better.

    My first student was a very slight, petite young woman. She switched to my computation/theory group from another group, where a daily part of the job was moving very heavy hardware. I suppose you could say she could have bulked up, but the truth is she’s a brilliant person and there are many closely related subfields where brawn is not quite so important, but the brain really is.

    Some people have “golden hands” and can work miracles in the lab; it is a legitimate form of talent, like being able to play soccer really well. People with golden hands will always be better in the lab than someone who works hard to become merely passable. But maybe the latter person has another superior skill. Or maybe they would be well-suited for a different subfield.

    A very prominent scientist in my field is blind. He’s quite prolific and a deep, original thinker. He’s a theorist, because you can in fact be a blind theorist, as there is software to work with advanced math, and the rest is really one’s ability to engage in abstract thought. No matter how much you want to, you cannot be a blind experimentalist.

    I think Another Anon summed it up well: why is it a taboo to say that someone may not have the requisite physical skills? Sometimes you can work hard to get to requisite competence, but sometimes you cannot. It’s tough to figure out where the boundary is, also very tough to be the one to tell the person they cannot hack it. But it happens in every human endeavor. Luckily, there are so many subfields of science, there is certainly something else closely related a smart and talented person could do.

  5. If you think a students lacks either the physical skill (or maybe mental skill?) to do the job, there should be less emphasis on discouraging the student and more on helping them make an informed decision. Just tell them “X is what the job requires. If you can’t do X, but want to put in the effort to get there, then I will totally support you and help you get there to the best of my ability. But if you want a position that doesn’t require X, that’s completely reasonable too and there is no shame in switching to something that better matches your talents.” And then follow through with that. I also think this is a good strategy because we’re all prone to bias and can make mistakes in our judgement (particularly on the mental skill side), so it’s better not to act as a gatekeeper until they’ve not met the expectations that have been made explicit.

  6. I am a student in a physically demanding career, who also happens to have multiple chronic illnesses. Most supervisors and employers may hear about my physical limitations and assume I am incompatible for a position because of them. It is true that it requires much more effort for me to perform tasks, but like the student mentioned in the post, I do them successfully and efficiently. Mentors and supervisors should bluntly tell students what is required of the job, mentioning types and frequency of tasks, expectations of work, and what disqualifies them in relation to physical demand.

    However, they should also explain why this disqualifies them. For example, I cannot go into certain temperatures of water. So if an employer says I must be able to swim, I would ask for them to clarify. I am incompatible with a career as a lifeguard, at least for the time being. However, if the job position requires me to work on a boat and to get my feet wet, I am able and qualified for that position. Being able to swim for safety is a different requirement than if it were a regular task on the job.

    Mentors and supervisors should also be willing to ask and listen to their students. Say you are working with animals and a student is having a hard time restraining a dog. Discuss with them why this is. If they are afraid of dogs, they may be incompatible with that career. However, they may not know how to do so safely since this is their first job working with animals. This is a modifiable physical limitation. If you have a student with a chronic illness, do not be afraid about asking the student, or employee, about their physical limitations. Ask, too, if they know of any modifications that will allow them to successfully perform a task. Or suggest a modification. People who may seem physically incompatible may surprise you with their ideas and understanding of a position and career. It is, however, extremely important to be honest to a student. If they are not meeting the expectations discussed, they need to be told they may be incompatible for the job unless modifications can be made. Unfortunately, some students do not know what a positions or career requires until they are doing it themselves.

  7. it depends on the physical limitations and the job. And you do have to be ADA compliant: there are reasonable accomodations for some of these issues.

  8. I appreciate your take on tackling an assignment above an ability or capability whatever that case might be. I am retired from three separate career pursuits….all of them required performance above my intellect, skills, and abilities….and all were completed satisfactorily enough to yield a comfortable retirement and a proper “Retirement Ceremony”. In the most difficult of my pursuits, I will never forget the words I spontaneously blurted out to my wife when our After Ceremony Party began–I hugged her and I cried; and I said: “Honey, they never knew…..they never knew.” Is “adequate” enough today? Probably not. I remain proud of being basically adequate and relatively successful, and I never was afraid to try to measure up to a job I knew was going to be “Monster Tough”. That being said……when a limitation is a disability…few Mentors or Supervisors would know it until after a failed effort.

  9. Of course it is possible to be physically incompatible with a job – one example – at less than 5 ft tall, I would never be able to have a professional basketball career. I could still play basketball with friends and colleagues for fun, or in a local comp, if I wanted but no matter how hard i trained or how competent I became at the sport, a *career* in that field would just not be physically possible. So (if I had ever aspired to that), I would have had to choose something different if I wanted to be a high-class player. This general philosophy of life is the same, even for science careers.

  10. There go my Indiana Jones fantasies. You really don’t want to let me handle a bull whip. (That’s a must for archaeologists, right?) I’m tragically clumsy. I have scars from hat related injuries.

    Re: pipetting. I recently bought a new micrometer. It cost less than $10 with tax and shipping and it’s digital. Why is pipetting still stuck in the 1960s? Are people still sucking on those little tubes? Does OSHA even allow that? It’s 1990 people! Surely this is something we can automate.

    Enough of my idiocy. Thanks for another good post.

  11. And yet…sometimes calling a certain skill a “physical incompatibility” places an unnecessary obstacle in front of our students that only serves to maintain a status quo based upon gendered, racialized, and socioeconomic experiences that shut them out of science.
    For example, I had a supervisor in a lab who would get irate with me when he thought I was being too slow in manipulating the instruments and lacking in grip strength. He would completely lose his shit and ask me if I played piano that way or tied knots like that on a boat when I was younger. I grew up on welfare. Piano lessons and yachting were never in the cards for me.
    Years later, I learned that it was possible to modify the instruments to improve efficiency and require less upper-body strength to perform the same tasks. But I guess it’s just easier to tell people who don’t look like you that their bodies and brains are incompatible with a career as a scientist than it is to innovate a more inclusive environment.

  12. orbernard said: ” If you have a student with a chronic illness, do not be afraid about asking the student, or employee, about their physical limitations.”
    I watched someone get very, very angry after being asked such a question; the most common phrase in the rant was “How could he ask such a question!?!” Simply asking a question is viewed by many people as an act of aggression.
    “Do you have any medical issues that might affect your ability to do this job?” is apparently an off-limits question.

    • It isn’t acceptable to ask someone about their medical conditions, especially during the hiring process. ADA generally prevents hiring staff from asking about medical history before making someone an offer. It is the choice of the student/employee to disclose their medical condition/disability.

      If they establish an open dialogue with their supervisor or mentor, by their own choice, then I still think it is acceptable to discuss modifications. This doesn’t mean they should be asked what they can’t do because of their disability. I think questions about tasks and modifications are acceptable in most cases. To use myself as an example, for a field work job, I told my supervisor I had asthma. He asked if it would limit how much supplies I could carry in the field.

      Now, I am not saying that everyone in my position agrees with this. However, in the context of this discussion, I think it is better to discuss limitations and modifications since many people with chronic conditions and disabilities are assumed to be incompatible with a job. I agree, however, that the dialogue must be started by the student or employee and that there are still appropriate ways to have these types of conversations.

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